Question #175: Torn between my job and my life

Daisy & Mrs. Patmore in the kitchen at Downton Abbey
Your mentors want to give you the respect you've earned, but sometimes you have to ask directly for it.

Hi Captain Awkward

I have a casual job, working at a holiday camp. This job is about 4 hours away from home, and involves going and staying on the property while I work. I spent a couple of years after I left school living and working out there full time, but now I’m based in my home city, going to uni, and I work some weekends and holidays. I’ve known my boss since I was 10 years old – I grew up going to the camps myself. She’s a really lovely lady, who I’ve gotten close to over the years, and I’ve learned so much working out there over the years. Recently, though, I’ve had trouble balancing working out there and having a life back at home.

My boss is always asking me when I can come and how long I can stay, and… she’s hard to say no to. I always end up promising more time to her than I want to, and sometimes missing out on things I’d wanted to do. If I’ve told her I’ll work, though, then I think that I need to follow through on that commitment, unless someone breaks their leg back home.

Complicating this is the fact that my parents, particularly my mum, don’t really approve of my job, and certainly not the amount of time I spend out there. I’m usually getting pressure from them to be at home, and made to feel guilty if I’m not, as well as pressure from my boss to stay (what time do I need to leave? Could I stay a bit longer?).

I don’t want to let my boss down – it’s tough for her out there by herself. There’s not really anyone else there who has my experience or … this sounds a bit stuck up, but it’s true … my maturity. (A lot of girls start work there as teenagers, on a volunteer/work experience basis, and gradually work their way up). My boss can make me feel guilty in 5 seconds flat. But then, I feel guilty everytime I get on the phone to my parents and they want me at home. I’ve let them down a couple of times, because staying is easier. There’s just so much pressure, and sometimes I just feel lost – I cannot please everyone, or give everyone the time that they want, and trying to balance everything is just so exhausting.

Do you have any advice on a) working out how to spend my time and/or b) Saying no when people just want more of me than I can give?

Thank you,
Torn Apart

Dear Torn Apart:

Turns out that I do have some advice for you.

One possibility: Look for a new job that is close to home, pays what you need it to, and lets you do whatever it is that you’re so great at at the old job (Working with kids? Maintaining a property?). If you can find a part-time job closer to home that would give you money and at least some of what you like, take it and give your old boss your notice. Strongly recommended.

Second possibility: Ask your current boss for more money. If your skills and maturity in handling the job are so unique, she should pay you more for the trouble of you coming out there. Script: “You know I love working here, but the commute and the hours you need from me are making it difficult for me to stay on. Would you be willing to give me a raise of $x, and in return, I will commit to y hours/month on this schedule?”  Do this anyway, whether you look for a new job or not.

Other suggestions:

Put your schedule down on paper and keep to it, so it’s not an ongoing negotiation. You are right to keep your commitments to your job, but you are also right to say “We agreed that I’m leaving at 6, please don’t ask me to stay later. I’ll see you next weekend.

Work it out so you still work at the camp part time on holidays, but it’s not your only job? That way you could help your boss find and train a replacement.

Shut down guilt. “Sorry, I can’t! See you on Wednesday!”  Use all the strategies for shutting down unwanted conversations we talk about all the time on this site. One thing you (hopefully) figure out as you get older is how to say “I’m sorry you feel like that. I’ll be doing x, thanks,” and not taking the feelings of “authority figures” on as your own to play over and over inside your head. This is about learning to set boundaries and treat other people like adults who are separate from you and reminding yourself that you are separate from them. When bosses say “you are like family to me” or “I don’t know how I could get by without you” it can feel nice to hear but it is also super-manipulative because they are NOT your family and the best way to show appreciation for a job well done is money.

Your boss can try to make you feel guilty, but that doesn’t mean you have to feel guilty. If your parents call you and beg you to come home when you are at camp, you can limit phone calls with them or say, directly, “I have chosen to be here this weekend, I’ll see you at home.” Stop framing it as being “torn” between two authority figures who wield the power of guilt over you. You have choices about whether you are at camp or at home, and start framing it as a choice you’ve made. When you’re at home, choose to engage fully at home and not worry about camp.  When you’re at work, focus on being at work and don’t worry what your parents think.

This is part of growing up. There’s no choice that’s going to please everyone, so you need to make sure you are choosing to do what is good for you and communicating that clearly.



29 thoughts on “Question #175: Torn between my job and my life

  1. Why does the second suggestion focus on money? I didn’t see the LW mention anything about it not paying enough.

    1. Sorry if I didn’t explain that well enough!

      One way to “make up” for the inconvenience of a) a 4 hour commute b) having to be “on the road” away from family/home for a while/frequent guilt trips is to be paid enough so that you don’t mind it so much and it’s worth your while. The LW thinks that her skills would be very hard to replace, and her boss clearly wants more of her time, so why not ask for more compensation?

      1. Indeed. In the immortal words of Don Draper, “THAT’S WHAT THE MONEY IS FOR.” But it’s only true if you’re getting the money.

      2. Besides, it might encourage the employer to think about whether she really needs more time from the LW.

      3. It’s also probably likely that the parents think this is taking advantage, not a job opportunity, because the compensation is too low.

        1. This, plus a lot of us start out in the work world not knowing what an hour of our time ought to be worth. We spend so much time in school and college being taught that hard work is its own reward &c. that a good part of my “guidance counseling” volunteering for students in the bachelor’s program I graduated from has been, once you get through your 4th semester, DON’T WORK FOR FREE. If you know your shit and have skills, DON’T WORK FOR FREE! No, not even if your boss is a “starchitect” (excuse me while I laugh/cry) and why are you pulling 60 hour work weeks in your internship hoping to impress your boss and be allowed to stay on, when you just told me that you HATE WORKING 60 HOURS A WEEK and that everyone in the office treats you like their personal serf!

          (Sorry, I don’t mean “you” you, I think I just had a flashback to this sweet girl crying on my shoulder about her horrible internship and insisting through the tears, “But it’s such valuable experience, right? Plus I can’t quit, right?” No honey… no.)

          Anyway, standing up for your rights in the workplace is a vital skill, and it sounds like the LW could learn a lot from this situation.

          1. Also? You let it happen once and you will be struggling with the learned helplessness for years. It’s incredibly demoralizing.

          2. You’re good people. My college feels that their industry ties are more important than their students, so we’re encouraged to fill positions in the industry and do whatever is necessary to keep up the good reputation of the institution, even if it means being treated like crap. It’s tough to get into the mindset that your time is worth anything when your authority figures keep telling you that you should be grateful for any industry attention you get.

          3. You let it happen once and you will be struggling with the learned helplessness for years.

            Yes indeed! If people perceive you as a doormat, they’re not going to feel bad about walking over you, and will try to guilt you into submission if you try to be more assertive later. (Been there before.) In the absence of an educational poster campaign telling people to be nicer to meek people, firmly establishing your boundaries in the beginning is the way to go.

  2. Whoo boy did this letter hit home for me. My parents taught me from a young age that you honor your commitments. Combine this with society’s expectation that as a girl/woman you should always cooperate and help others, and I was a ripe target for being taken advantage of.
    “Can pick up extra shifts? Can you stay late? So-and-so is sick, can you come in and cover for them?”

    I have experienced even more of this in my current field of veterinary medicine. There’s always more work to be done, especially in emergency/critical care, and workers who set boundaries about their availability are treated as being “not committed” or “not good workers”. Which is one of many reasons I’m working to get the hell out of the field….

    Anyway, LW, CA’s advice is spot on. Don’t let guilt keep you from asking for what you’re worth, and not giving any more than you want. You deserve to have a life, too.

  3. LW, I notice you don’t say whether you actually LIKE your job, or whether you actually want to hang out with your parents when you’re not at work. What do you actually want to be doing, outside of what your boss and parents want you to be doing? I think deciding where you want to be at any given moment, and committing to that place (the Captain’s suggestions of a schedule at work that nails down your commitment there, and telling your parents you’ll see them when you get home if you’re at work, are excellent) will help you not feel so torn.

    1. Seconding this! I definitely noticed in the LW’s letter that zie didn’t say what zie would prefer to be doing. Furthermore, if zie isalso taking classes, that gives you an easy out without guilt (I speak from SO MUCH experience). Just say “nope, sorry, that’s my homework day,” or “studying for a test,” or whatever. And do make sure you’re prioritizing your schoolwork and not prioritizing pleasing everyone else 🙂

  4. Team Parents here.

    LW, sit down with your parents and ask them what their concerns are – and acknowledge it if they are valid. They may be concerned that you are de-prioritizing your schoolwork or your life for this work. It goes back to what CA was saying about choices. If you seem like you are bending out of guilt, they may be trying to exert more guilt “for your own good” whereas if you explain and stick to your own choices, they may feel relieved and ease up.

    What’s interesting is that the conflict only seems to be between your parents and your boss. Not between friends, boyfriend, time alone, schoolwork and parents. If your parents do not make a fuss about anything but this job, I would think hard about choosing this job and your boss over them. Even if you think they are being irrational, if they are usually on point, it is possible that they are seeing something that you are not seeing.

    I’ve gotta say, to me it sounds like the boss is trying to manipulate you and your parents may be trying to protect you from that. The fact that she makes you feel guilty is seriously inappropriate. I would argue that your boss is emotionally abusive. She is trying to take advantage of you and isolate you (through guilt) from your family, if not your friends. They are worried and trying to push you away from her without pushing you away.

    1. I love this! Asking your parents straight out like an adult…totally the way to go.

      And the “guiltboss” is not cool, which is why straight up asking for more money is the way to go.

    2. Also, it’s possible that the parents are smothering and the job gives the LW time away and autonomy from them…you never know! Still, a grownup discussion is the way to go.

  5. First, congratulations on being such a dependable and awesome person: especially doing something as difficult as working with kids who are away from home! Because if you weren’t so fucken awesome and indispensible at your jobbe, your boss wouldn’t be pulling out all the manipulative stops to try to get you to work more than you otherwise would.

    Second, you should really embrace the facts that you are so awesome and indispensible at your jobbe and that your boss knows it! Because the consequence of these things is that *you* have the upper hand over your boss in defining the terms of your employment.

    Third, you should make use of your knowledge of your upper hand to give you the confidence to speak openly and honestly to your boss, and make it clear exactly how much time you have available to spend working, when those times will occur, and that you won’t tolerate her attempts to induce you to work in amounts or at times other than what you have made clear. People who are awesome at what they do are very rare, and rational bosses know that and will accept an awesome employee on the employee’s terms (within reason).

  6. I have some experience with a situation like this. When I was unemployed I got the offer to be a personal assistant to a lady I had done some freelance for, with the understanding that it was part-time and I would leave if I found a full time position. The full time position came… and so did some guilt. It was half-joking, but there still seemed to be some sincerity/a pinch of guilt in the opinings of, “What will I do without you?” and “You can’t move away that far!”

    The tactic I found worked best was brushing it off with good humour and politeness, “Yeah, it’s a shame I won’t be close by/we can’t work together anymore. But still, what a good break, huh? And you helped me ride it out until I could find it, so thank you!” Then I trucked right along with my relocation plans.

    1. What you don’t realize when you’re caught in the guiltcycle is that if you leave your job, pretty soon you’ll be AT A NEW JOB and the guilt will vanish. *poof.*

  7. If your parents are taking care of you financially for the most part, as you attend college, then I would suggest that you quit the job that is 4 hours away (and have you been paying for your own gas to and from?) and find something else in your home city. If your parents are the clingy type and want you at home more than you want to be there, let them know what your schedule is so that they’ll know when to expect you home. At some point they’ll have to realize that you need to be independent and meet new people, attend concerts, go out on dates, etc., in order to grow into a mature person. Offer to pay for some things around the house or do chores regularly. You’re only young once, and the college years are one of the most exciting times of life.

    (Since I have no idea what your home life is like, whether your parents want you to chip in financially or do cooking or chores, etc., I’m guessing here.)

    If you’re still unsure about whether to leave the job, my suggestion would be to weigh all the pros and cons of staying with the job vs. finding something else in the city while living with your parents. I’ve been in plenty of jobs where “could you work a few more hours for so-and-so?” became a commonplace phrase, and I began to dread that question. Either that, or it was just understood that as a committed employee, I would automatically, and gladly, lend a helping hand at all times. I worked many hours of overtime, and I ended up being burned out and counting the days until the jobs were over.

    My thought, after reading your letter, is that you want to leave that job and stay in the city you live in, but you feel burdened with guilt. You’ve done your duty, to the best of your ability. Your commitment is right up there with the best of employees. But it sounds as if it’s time to leave if you keep having conflicted thoughts about staying.

    Is there a way that you can give your boss a date that you’ll leave the job and offer to help train someone else before you go? That way you’ll have an end date to your job, and you can rest easier, knowing that you’ve trained someone else to take your place. If it takes too long of a time to train the person, then find a way to leave your job, anyway. Your boss has certainly been in that situation before, hasn’t she, where she’s needed to find a new employee?

    Don’t feel guilty because you’re leaving, if you decide to. You’ve done a great service, but it sounds as if it’s simply time for you to move on. Your boss may say some things that cause guilt to rise up, but no matter WHEN you leave, she would probably say the same thing. Particularly, don’t stay on and work way past the time you feel is right for you. You need to think of your own happiness first. This isn’t being selfish. It’s like the “put your own oxygen mask on first” situation. You don’t want to feel constantly conflicted. That can interfere with the rest of your life. Be happy first, in your choices, and you’ll be much better off and will feel lighter, and others will be uplifted as well.

  8. Oh, guilt. I gave up most guilt when I stopped being Mormon because it is usually just the voice of other people’s expectations nagging at you. You have to do what is best for you, then own your choices and accept that you cannot control other people’s emotions or reactions to them. Now I usually only feel guilty if I disappoint myself. So freeing!

    LW, That boss lady will keep on playing the guilt card as long as she can. Learn to say no. You are not a bad person if you decline to do someone a favor that involves an 8-hour round trip. If you love the job and want to keep it, draw healthy boundaries. Also, what’s the deal with your parents? Are you perchance an only and/or oldest child? Because SRSLY, you are an adult in college, they should probably get used to you not being around and you should not feel guilty for living an independent, adult life. Maybe set up a special time once a month to have dinner with your parents? If they keep on with the guilt trips, you should remind them how lucky they are you did not move across the country for school. This will surely not be the last time they will disapprove of one of your choices, but hopefully if you refuse to bow to their emotional blackmail, they will learn to respect that you are a grown-up who has not actually ruined his/her life or theirs! Not that I speak from personal experience or anything.

  9. Hi there, LW here. Thanks so much for the quick response. Since some people have asked, I do enjoy my job – sometimes when I’m out there with the kids and the animals, I think it’s the best place in the world. I’m really glad that I did spend the time out there that I did after I left school, but for a variety of reasons, I decided that it’s not what I want to do for the rest of my life and that I want to concentrate on being at uni for now.

    I don’t know that I want to quit my job entirely. It’s been a really important part of my life, and as a uni student I do have long holidays where I’m not doing very much. However, I will bear that in mind as a possibility if things get really tricky there. I know some staff members in the past have resorted to the “scorched earth approach” to extricate themselves, but I hope it doesn’t come to that.

    My boss is manipulative, and she’s very good at it. That’s something that’s taken me a while to see, and it was a painful realisation to come to, because she has been like family to me growing up. But ultimately she’s looking out for what’s best for her business, which is fair enough, but it’s not always what’s best for me. I think I need to go over all the advice here on difficult conversations and saying no – I’ll go into a conversation with her with the best of intentions of not promising too much, and afterwards I’ve given up a week of my study time.

    Finding a job here in the city is absolutely something I want to do – I’ve been working on it for the past year, and though things have gone quiet over the summer, I should have work come February.

    I think the Captain is right – a lot of this is about me growing up and making choices for myself, and as much as I might like to think so, I’m not grown up yet. I know I”ll get there one day though

    1. Hey Claire, just to say best of luck figuring out what you want, and in standing up for yourself once you’ve worked it out. I liked the suggestion up thread of working out exactly how much time you can afford/want to give and making a time-table. Using the ‘I need to do college work’ card with your boss, even if what you plan to do is spend time with your folks, might help. She can’t really argue with that, because like it or not, your college work is your (main?) priority!

      And also, growing up is hard! I’m only 23 and still have so far to go! The progress made motivates me to keep going 🙂

    2. I dunno if you are still reading, but I have been thinking about your letter since CA published it.

      A friend of mine got a job working at a camp where he had spent 10+ summers of his life. The place meant the world to him. He’d been there as a camper and then a counselor. It was, in many ways, a dream job.

      But it was not a perfect job, in fact it had some really difficult aspects to it, and his relationship with his boss was very challenging. The thing was, his emotional, personal connection to the camp made all of this a lot harder to deal with. He cared DEEPLY about the place. He knew how much the place needed him, and how much it would suffer if he left (or, say, in your case, worked fewer hours). He was anguished when he finally left that job, even though it was the right thing.

      All this to say, you’ve got another layer of connection and guilt running through this as you deal with the situation, and that makes it harder. I think you need to respect that emotional connection, and also recognize that it may influence your reactions and your decision-making. Other people may not get it. I have no answer for you otherwise, but my cap is off to you for dealing with something that I know can be quite hard.

  10. Some other commenters have touched on this, but I’d like to expand on it a little bit.

    I was a Resident Assistant in the dorms when I was in college, and I saw a LOT of this. “My parents said I have to X.” “My parents want me to do Y.” It’s really hard for a lot of uni students to do–to come to the realization that your parents are no longer In Charge, and you don’t have to do anything that they’re pressuring you to, if you don’t want to. College really is a learning experience in a lot of ways, including how to be An Adult and Interact with Parents as a Grown Child. Others have asked you what it is that YOU want. Whatever it is, do it. If you don’t know, it’s up to you to figure it out. It would be really easy to bend to your parents wishes here, if you’re not sure, and a LOT of college students do it.

    But you can’t. Learning how to say no to your parents, learning to do what you want, and learning how to build boundaries and push back when your parents push said boundaries, has got to be done, and early in your college career. What’s happening now, at this stage in your life, is the relationship that you and your parents will have as adults is being created. At this point, they’re figuring out how to treat you as an adult, because in all likelihood, they’re still thinking of you as a teenager. Part of what you’re going to have to do is remind them, by setting these boundaries, and pushing back when they’re pressuring you into doing something (or outright telling you to do something.), that you’re an adult now, and that they have to shift their mindset to relate to you not as a child, as a teenager, but an adult.

    It’s not going to be easy, but in the long run, it will make interacting with your parents a lot more pleasant. And, you’ll end up getting to do a lot more of the things that you’d like.

  11. I feel complete sympathy for the “guilted into more work” vulnerability, especially as you’ve shared that there are many aspects of your job that are appealing to you. I have always been that employee that gets guilted into one extra shift, one more project, ect. I think it’s because I often conflate my self-image as a reliable, professional, outstanding employee with praise and special recognition from supervisors. The problem here is that praise and recognition can be granted/withheld according to standards far removed from objective quality and quantity of work (like office politics, or a supervisor hearing what she wants to hear rather than a reality check!).

    The more I have held myself to my own internal standards of work, the better I do. While I still crave the “atta girl,” the times I have said no or drawn boundaries, I have ended up quite happy. The most important question to me is the work: how much time to you have to put in to do the job to your standards, and do you have that time and motivation to spare? If the demands completely outstrip what you have available, never be afraid to walk away. It does not diminish the value of what you have done up to that point, but it frees you to grow in a new direction.

  12. Can I just say that this is brilliant advice: “When bosses say “you are like family to me” or “I don’t know how I could get by without you” it can feel nice to hear but it is also super-manipulative because they are NOT your family and the best way to show appreciation for a job well done is money.”

    I had a boss who was lovely in many ways, but would say things like this all of the time as a way to guilt me into working more and accepting less than I am worth. It is nice to be appreciated, but it’s even better to have a boss that respects your boundaries and is willing to value your work.

    1. The best boss I ever had is actually invited to my wedding, so it’s possible to be both professional AND supportive, mentoring, and friendly with your subordinates. And this boss was also quick to let me know when I did something well, and my yearly performance reviews weren’t even something I dreaded even though I knew we would have to talk about the ways in which I could improve. A boss who you have to resort to a “scorched earth policy” just to stop working with seems to me to be almost an emotionally abusive individual, certainly not someone who is professional or interested in what is best for YOU.

      The point is that the choice isn’t between someone who is manipulative and needy and someone who doesn’t value your work and doesn’t care about your personal life. There are many ways to be a good and responsible supervisor in between those.

  13. If you really do want to stay at the job (want for yourself, not out of guilt) maybe something else you can do is, as well as writing down a timetable and sticking with it also email/send/give a copy of it to your boss. Double check with her that she received it. Then if she tries to guilt you into more hours, you can refer directly back to it and shut down her attempts at “negotiation” and just say something along the lines of “well, as you can see from my timetable I’m fully booked, see you next …”. Hopefully after a few of these encounters she’ll understand that you have strict time boundaries.

    On a personal note to the LW, I get where your coming from, for the longest time I was the “yes” person who could always be cajoled into working extra shifts/hours, or swapping shifts with my colleagues even if I really didn’t want to. All I can say is that “No” takes practice, we are culturally (particularly women) socialised into thinking that to be ‘good people’ we have to be people pleasers and put the needs of other before our own. The first time I did my outright “No” to a co-worker I was literally shaking, I knew it wouldn’t get me in trouble but I was just so worried about being displeasing (totally f-ed up I know!). But the more I did it, the more confident and comfortable it became to do, sure enough after setting the boundaries people would still ask for these favours, but they knew also that if my answer was an absolute no, they couldn’t cajole me into an answer more pleasing to them.

    Being the yes person can be a really easy thing to slip back into, and if people are used to you doing it they then begin expecting you to always say yes. It can be tricky at first, and people may not take you seriously from the outset, but for your own free time and wellbeing it is never to late to erase the subliminal “doormat” stamp off your forehead.

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